Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves 1954-74
He may not have the charisma of Babe Ruth, the flash of Willie Mays,
or achieved the icon status of Mickey Mantle or Joe Dimaggio, but a very strong case can be made that Henry Aaron is the greatest
baseball player of all time. Baseball is a game of numbers, and no man has more command of those numbers than Aaron. Everyone
knows Aaron holds the record with 755 career home runs, but he is also the games' all time leader in RBI (2,297), total bases
(6,856), and extra base hits (1,477). He also posted a record 20 straight 20+ home run seasons, became the first player ever
to enter the 500 home run/3000 hit club, and only Pete Rose (4,256) and Ty Cobb (4,189) have more hits than his 3,771. Although
they are impressive, numbers only begin to scratch the surface of Hank Aaron's greatness - here is his story.
Louis Aaron was born on February 5, 1934 in a poor, mostly black area of Mobile, AL. Early in his childhood, the Aaron family
moved to a better part of town. It was there that Aaron became a star in high school, playing third base and shortstop. Despite
his cross-handed style, he excelled as a hitter, and began playing semipro ball during the summer at age 15.
Aaron quit school and joined the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. His stay in Indy didn't last long, however,
as he was sold in June to the Milwaukee Braves for $10,000. He began his minor league career with Eau Claire (WI) of the Northern
League and won Rookie of the Year. His next stop was the freshly integrated South Atlantic League. Despite all the complications
and hardships of playing in the "separate-but-equal" South, Aaron led Jacksonville to the league title and picked up the MVP.
The 6 foot 160lb Aaron headed to Spring Training in 1954 with hopes of heading north with the Braves. Things weren't
looking good until starting left fielder Bobby Thomson went down with a broken ankle. Aaron won the battle as Thomson's replacement
and became the Brave's regular left fielder.
His first big league home run came relatively quickly; on April 23rd
off St. Louis' Vic Raschi. Aaron hit .280 with 13 home runs in a 122 games his rookie season. A broken ankle, ironically,
on September 5th ended his season prematurely.
The next season Aaron was permanently moved to right field. He built
on his solid rookie season, hitting .314 with 27 HR and 106 RBI. In 1956, Aaron won the National League batting title with
a .328 average, led the league with 200 hits and 340 total bases, and hit 26 HR with 92 RBI.
The 1957 season may have
been his finest. Aaron won his only MVP, hitting .322 (4th in the NL), led the league in home runs with 44, RBI with 132,
and total bases 369. The Braves clinched the NL pennant in late September when Aaron hit a two run homer in the bottom of
the 11th. He was carried off the field by his teammates. The Braves went on to defeat the Yankees in seven games for Milwaukee's
only world title. Aaron hit .393 with 3 HR in the Fall Classic.
The Braves captured their second straight NL pennant
in 1958, but this time the Yankees won in seven games. Aaron hit .333 in his final World Series appearance. In 1959 Aaron
won a second NL batting crown, posting a career high .355 average.
Aaron continued his quiet, consistent excellence throughout the next
decade, hitting 40, 34, 45, 44, 24, 32, 44, 39, 29, and 44 home runs from 1960-69. Inbetween that time, the Braves moved south
to Atlanta, and by the end of the decade, the 35 year old Aaron stood at 554 career home runs - in striking distance of the
Babe's mark of 714.
Aaron showed no signs of slowing down entering the 70s. He hit 38 long balls in 1970, and posted
a career high 47 in 1971 - at the age of 37. After hitting 34 and 40 homers in '72 and '73, respectively, Aaron stood at 713
entering the 1974 season.
After a long off season filled with stress and racially motivated hate mail, Aaron's 1974
campaign began with controversy. The Braves opened the season in Cincinnati, and wanted to sit out Aaron the first three games
to ensure he would break the record in Atlanta. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, conspicuous by his absence, stepped in and ordered
the Braves to put Aaron in the lineup. Aaron's first swing of the season against the Red's Jack Billingham, tied Ruth's mark.
When the Braves returned home on April 8th, a crowd of 53,775 came out to greet them, and curiously Commissioner Kuhn
was not among them. Aaron did not disappoint the masses, belting an Al Downing pitch in the fourth inning into the Braves'
bullpen. As he rounded the bases two rowdy college students ran out and met him between second and third - it remains some
of the most memorable footage in baseball history. Aaron was mobbed when he reached home, and reliever Tom House, who caught
the ball in the bullpen, came running in to give it to Aaron. Henry Aaron was now baseball's all time home run king.
would hit 18 more home runs that season to finish with 20. Following the '74 season, Aaron was dealt back to Milwaukee to
finish his career with the Brewers. A part-time designated hitter, he was clearly past his prime, but did provide a few final
memories for the Milwaukee fans. He retired following the 1976 season with 755 home runs and a .305 batting average.
life after baseball has been successful, he's served in the Braves' front office in several capacities, and has taken part
in many other successful business dealings. Despite, all of his considerable accomplishments, however, he still does not receive
the accolades afforded to other living legends like Willie Mays or Ted Williams. One could spend days arguing about who the
greatest baseball player of all time is, and never reach a consensus. However, one fact is apparent, no player has played
the game at a consistently superstar-like level longer than Henry Aaron.
-David Zingler, June 2002
Simply Baseball Notebook
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